I got interested in business as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal in Chicago (1968-70). After I became a free-lancer in Philadelphia, in 1975, I discovered that there was a demand for my services, because in those days most business writers weren’t very good writers, and most good writers knew and cared little about business.
In 1976 the New York Times Magazine asked me to write a profile of the world’s largest institutional investor, J.P. Morgan & Co. In the course of my research I read several biographies of the great Pierpont Morgan. I grew curious about Morgan’s senior partner, Anthony Drexel, after reading that he was the only person Morgan would defer to. I proposed a book about Drexel to Random House, which had just published my first book (Finding Our Fathers) and was very high on me. They said they’d publish my Drexel biography if I really wanted to, but they weren’t enthusiastic about its sales prospects. I said in that case I’d withdraw the proposal. Enthusiasm is critical to me in any given situation.
It took more than 20 years, but eventually I found an enthusiastic publisher in the University of Pennsylvania Press. I also found an enthusiastic supporter in Constantine (Taki) Papadakis, who became president of Drexel University in 1995. He arranged for a research grant that enabled me to get the book off the back burner.
He also gave me a lesson in inspiration. At our first meeting, he remarked, “I want a book that, when I pick it up, I won’t be able to put it down!” My immediate instinct was to reply: “You can’t commission something like that. Anthony Drexel is what he is. If he’s a boring guy, I can’t make him sexy.” But for some reason I said nothing of the sort. Instead I told myself: “That’s an interesting challenge. Let me see if I can meet it.”
The result was The Man Who Made Wall Street, a page-turner (my opinion, to be sure) published in 2001 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. This biography of a most unsexy banker sold 7,000 copies in hardback (an awesome figure for an academic press) and has passed the 15,000 mark in paperback. Recently, a Chinese-language edition was published in Shanghai. And I, of course, got a work that may actually outlive me. But it wouldn’t have happened without Taki’s prodding, which to me is what leadership is all about.
Taki’s challenge relates to the eternal challenge of journalism, with which I constantly grapple: Why do the world’s most pressing problems seem to steadfastly resist solution? The answer, I concluded, is that the most important things in life are often the least interesting, and consequently the world’s attention wanders elsewhere— to the Super Bowl, say, or “Sex and the City.” The development of the common law, the workings of financial markets, the raising and processing of the world’s food supply, the evolution of indoor plumbing and modern sewage systems, the complexities of bookkeeping, the blessings of life and property insurance— these and similar milestones in the history of human progress rarely inspire best-selling novels or feature films.
Certainly coal belonged high on such a list. Here was the critical force behind yesterday’s industrial revolution and today’s electricity supply— which is to say the critical force driving the modern world. Yet with the exception of a few books on mine disasters and John L. Lewis, the titanic human struggle to extract coal from the ground and bring it to a relentlessly capricious market had never been chronicled for a popular audience.
How does a writer dramatize such a subject (coal) in accessible human terms? I despaired of answering that question for many years until, serendipitously, I encountered E.B. (Ted) Leisenring Jr., the retired chief executive of Westmoreland Coal, in 1997. Ted represented the fifth generation of a coal dynasty, and he had donated its papers to the Hagley Library in Wilmington. Thus was conceived my plan to use the Leisenring family saga as a microcosm for the story of coal and, by extension, the story of the modern industrial world. The result was In the Kingdom of Coal, published by Routledge in 2003. The Drexel biography and the coal book were like many of my projects. You plant a lot of seeds, and you never know which ones will bear fruit. I worked for 57 years on reconstructing the life of the Pony Express superintendent Jack Slade before it was published as Death of a Gunfighter in 2008. Slade was long maligned as a drunk and desperado, but I made the case— persuasively, I think— that he was an unsung hero who played a major role in the opening of the West and in the survival of the Union during the Civil War. Slade’s problem was that a great deal was spoken and written about him, most of it wrong. It wasn’t until the advent of computers and the Internet that I was able to assemble all the various published accounts of any given incident and trace them to a single original account— which was usually false.
Your experiences have run from large papers like the Wall Street Journal to magazines like Town & Country to alternative weeklies to the Internet. Is there any hope for large newspapers? What do you think they can learn from the “alternative” and online media?
In the early ’70s I was managing editor of the Chicago Journalism Review, the local monthly journal of press criticism. It began because a group of local journalists were furious about the mainstream Chicago newspapers’ timid coverage of the police violence against antiwar protesters and reporters at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. CJR’s purpose followed the best tradition of a free press: to embarrass the established media into doing a better job. Soon, the mainstream papers began to co-opt a lot of our ideas. For example, when we attacked the practice of segregating classified “help wanted” ads by gender, the local papers did away with that practice even before federal law made it illegal.
The Chicago Journalism Review was a precursor of alternative weeklies like the Welcomat in Philadelphia, which I edited from 1981 to 1993. The Welcomat was a place where people could exchange opinions, somewhat like the Broad Street Review of today. It was also, of course, a precursor of blogs on the Internet.
Is there room for satire/humor (à la Calvin Trillin, Art Buchwald, Dan Rottenberg) on the printed page (as opposed to TV’s Stewart and Colbert)? Are satire/humor more effective than advocacy pieces?
My editorial model was Vermont Royster, editor of the Wall Street Journal. “You can get opinions from any cab driver,” he liked to say. “What matters is the insight you bring to the reader.”
For me, the three key elements of an opinion column are wit, courage and expertise. Most columnists are lucky to deliver two out of three. Steve Lopez of the Philadelphia Inquirer had wit and guts but lacked expertise. The late Mike Royko of Chicago was one of the few I can think of who possessed all three.
When it comes to attracting and persuading an audience, anger wears thin very quickly. Humor usually works better. My parodies of newspaper columnists are one of my trade marks. But wit is merely the salt of talk, not the food. Gail Collins, of the New York Times, is funny, but her ridicule of politicians can get repetitive.
How does a native New Yorker spend his life in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia is a great place to be a journalist. It’s close to the centers of power (Washington and New York) without being in the center— which allows for perspective. In Philadelphia, you don’t have to shout to get people’s attention, and you’re not self-conscious about being in the glare of the global spotlight. In that respect Philadelphia writers enjoy more freedom to say what they really think than writers in New York and Washington.
Center City Philadelphia is also unique in its large, affluent, well-educated population— people who live and work in the same neighborhood. A paper like the Welcomat— largely written by its readers— probably couldn’t have succeeded anywhere else.
I’ve lived in three major cities (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia) and one county-seat town (Portland, Ind.). I could probably be happy anywhere. In Portland I learned I could make a difference in my community. That’s not a lesson I had growing up in New York. But I like cities because of their sense of the infinite– that I can always learn something new. In the city you develop coping mechanisms you don’t learn in suburbs or small towns. My daughters, both raised in Philadelphia, now live in New York; Philadelphia’s too slow for them. I’m not sure I could afford to live the sort of life in New York that I have in Philadelphia– where I can walk to work and to the Avenue of the Arts.
You’ve written about a lot of people. According to your personal website, in 1992 Riccardo Muti (music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra) told you: “You're the only one in Philadelphia who understands what I'm trying to do!” What was he trying to do? Why did he think you were the only one to get it right?
Muti suffered a great deal of criticism. Toward the end of his tenure, I wrote an open letter in the Welcomat (2/5/1992) defending him. Here’s an excerpt:
“Your particular cross has been the equally small but equally vocal claque of local troglodytes who’ve never forgiven you because you’re not Eugene Ormandy, because you don’t live here year-’round, and because you don’t play public relations games. I suspect that thousands of Philadelphia music lovers respect, admire and even love you for precisely these reasons, but we’ve largely kept silent rather than cast aspersions on the memory of Ormandy. We loved him, too— a wonderful conductor and a devoted Philadelphian. But after 44 years of syrup, we needed a breath of fresh air and a recharging of our batteries. You’ve given us both, and it’s high time somebody said so.”
The night my column appeared, Muti was conducting an opera at the Academy of Music with Luciano Pavarotti. Judith Kurnick, the Orchestra’s communications director, asked me to stop backstage after the concert. When I said hello to Muti, he exclaimed, “You're the only one in Philadelphia who understands what I'm trying to do!”— this in the presence of Pavarotti, Senator Vince Fumo and the Orchestra’s top executives. He was a man of great passion but not necessarily great diplomatic skills.
You wrote about the “Philadelphia lawyer” in your history of Wolf Block Schorr and in the Philadelphia Bar Association’s 200-year commemorative issue. Is there still such a thing today as the “Philadelphia lawyer?" And, if so, what is it?
The notion of the "Philadelphia Lawyer" originated with Andrew Hamilton’s libel defense of the publisher Peter Zenger in New York in 1735, which established the principle of freedom of the press. It also comes from their reputation for being crafty and detail-oriented to a fault. Today, in my mind, the label stands for something different yet again: a large and well-organized legal community that’s uniquely dedicated to both public and private service. In that respect there’s nothing quite like it in any other city.
In 1993 I started Seven Arts Magazine, which was mailed to the 150,000 members of Channel 12/PBS. I thought Channel’s 12’s membership was a sophisticated audience that Philadelphia media weren’t serving. I was wrong: The membership was about one-third highbrow and two-thirds middlebrow. I was the wrong editor for such an audience, so I stepped down. But I never abandoned the idea.
In 2005, Neil Kleinman, a dean at the University of the Arts, suggested I try my idea online. That’s how Broad Street Review got started— first under the University’s auspices, and subsequently as an independent entity. I like Broad Street Review because I’m interacting with an audience that’s bright and engaged. It’s also taught me about the Internet— enough that I have no desire to return to print. Here you can post instantly all over the world without worrying about distribution or paper supplies. If you’re writing about music, the reader can hear the music while she’s reading. If you make a mistake, you can correct it instantly. And our yearly budget is about $80,000. By comparison, my previous weekly, the Philadelphia Forum (1996-98), had a bare-bones budget of $500,000. Robert Zaller is a perfect example of the sort of writer I hoped Broad Street Review would attract. He’s knowledgeable in many fields, opinionated and prolific. He’s a history professor at Drexel who somehow finds the time and energy to write about many things, presumably because we give him an outlet to express himself.
Do business and art mix? Who’s more creative?
I’ve basically covered four fields as a journalist: politics, business, philanthropy and the arts. The popular view is that business-people are greedy and selfish, whereas art, politics and philanthropy serve the public. Yet I’ve actually found that the business-people I’ve covered, by and large, tend to be more forthright and more capable, perhaps because the marketplace holds them accountable on a daily basis.
Your most recent book is The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment. Can you talk about Mr. Greenfield?
This is another case of planting seeds. Greenfield (1887-1967) was a classic immigrant hustler who rose from a real estate broker to a developer to a banker and head of a vast department store chain. He became one of the most powerful men in Philadelphia. The local WASP establishment was terrified of him and tried to put him out of business in 1930, but he bounced back, outlasted most of his enemies and even transformed some of them into friends.
In 1976 I wrote a profile of Albert Greenfield’s empire for Philadelphia Magazine. In the years since, I’ve had two books on my back burner— one about how Jews changed business in America (and vice versa), the other about the decline of the Protestant Establishment in America. Greenfield’s story ties into both of those themes. So, two years ago, when Temple University Press approached me about writing Greenfield’s biography, I jumped at the chance.
In the intervening years, Greenfield’s voluminous personal papers have been made public, so they add a whole new dimension to the two dozen interviews I conducted back in ’76, nearly all of them with people who are no longer alive. The book has a fuller dimension because I took my time with it.
What else do you have on the back burner?
I’ve been working on a memoir about growing up in New York during the postwar years (1945-60), and how that experience shaped my generation. My school class, born in 1942 and ’43, really represented the bridge from the complacent ’50s to the rebellious ’60s. We were the first class to grow up with no conscious memory of the Great Depression or World War II, so we tended to take peace and prosperity for granted and to focus instead on what was wrong with society. We became teenagers in 1955, the year rock ’n roll music, with all its rebellious connotations, first arrived in a big way. In college, we were the “Kennedy Class”— JFK was elected in our freshman year and assassinated when we were seniors— and so we were motivated to push for positive changes in society, whereas people just a few years behind us wanted to tear down society and start all over from scratch.
Will the seeds of this idea bear fruit? That’s hard to say. But I hope to go on planting seeds as long as I’m able.
In your interview with the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine, the Pennsylvania Gazette, you say, “I seek education, community, and immortality. Most of my writing projects create some sort of community. And most of my books, I like to think, will be of value long after I’m gone, even if they’re not best-sellers.”Is that the fundamental purpose of the press— to create community?
Community means a great deal to me personally. But above all I see the role of a journalist as an observer. My grandfather lived to be 99. When I asked what kept him going, he said he just wanted to see how everything turns out. That’s what keeps me going, too.